Showing that Black Art Matters: Festival at Amherst College’s Mead Museum displays work by African American artists

  • This painting by Amherst College sophomore Jordan Brice will be included in the Black Art Matters Festival. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eboni Rafus-Brenning, director of the Multicultural Resource Center at Amherst College, puts out some of the work to be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at Amherst College Mead Art Museum. In foreground are polymer clay “Heartboxes” by Amherst community member Kathleen DeQuence Anderson.

  • “Serenity,” by Amherst College first-year student Zora Duncan, will be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at the Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • These clay jewel necklaces are by Amherst community member Kathleen DeQuence Anderson and are part of the Black Art Matters Festival at the Amherst College Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Eboni Rafus-Brenning, director of the Multicultural Resource Center at Amherst College, puts out some of the work to be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at Amherst College Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst College sophomore Kai Ahmadu is recycling items like discarded candy wrappers, book covers and magazine art into a multi-media collage to be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at the Amherst College Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • A painting by Amherst College first-year student Zora Duncan will be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at the Amherst College Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of a clay jewel necklace by Amherst community member Kathleen DeQuence Anderson which is part of the Black Art Matters Festival at Amherst College Mead Art Museum on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Photographed in the Multicultural Resource Center at the Keefe Campus Center on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • These polymer clay “Heartboxes” are by Amherst community member Kathleen DeQuence Anderson and are part of the Black Art Matters Festival at the Amherst College Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of the interior of a polymer clay “Heartbox” by Amherst community member Kathleen DeQuence Anderson. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst College sophomore Kai Ahmadu talks about a multi-media collage of found and recycled materials he’s creating for the Black Art Matters Festival at Amherst College Mead Art Museum on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Photographed in the Multicultural Resource Center at the Keefe Campus Center on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst College sophomore Kai Ahmadu has a bag of lollipop and candy boxes he’s recycling into a multi-media collage to be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at Amherst College Mead Art Museum. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

  • Amherst College sophomore Kai Ahmadu is recycling items like discarded candy wrappers, book covers and magazine art into a multi-media collage to be included in the Black Art Matters Festival at Amherst College Mead Art Museum on Friday, Feb. 28, 2020. Photographed in the Multicultural Resource Center at the Keefe Campus Center on Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2020. STAFF PHOTO/KEVIN GUTTING

For the Gazette
Published: 2/27/2020 3:59:47 PM

With African American artists marginalized in the majority of museum settings, Amherst College is hosting an event to feature this underrepresented group. It’s called Black Art Matters.

Held on Friday, Feb. 28, the event will showcase photography portraits, dance routines and canvas drawings — all created by African American artists — at Amherst College’s Mead Museum.

The free festival celebrates Black History Month with visual and performative work created by students of color across the Five Colleges.

“Not only is this an event centering and celebrating black art and saying black art is important and museum-worthy, it’s also trying to address inequities and shift the tide in the art world in general,” says Eboni Rafus-Brenning the Director of Amherst’s College Multicultural Resource Center (MRC), which is holding the event in collaboration with the Mead.

From 5-8 p.m. all are welcome to a salon-style art viewing throughout the Mead with an acoustic-friendly room dedicated to live music and spoken word performances.

The event will also have catered Jamaican cuisine and guests will have unlimited access to the museum.

“It’s a party,” says Danielle Amodeo, the Mead’s public programmer and marketing specialist. “It feels good to be in a space where people feel at home and are representing themselves, their culture and their race. That’s important.”

Amherst College freshman, Zora Duncan, will showcase two drawings at Friday’s event. One of her pieces, titled “Serenity,” displays a group of black men drawn with pencil and graphite.

“I felt like it fit for the event. I like seeing a variety of art,” Duncan says. “When I first started drawing I usually drew the same type of person, usually female, with white or lighter skin tones because it’s always harder to work with darker colors. But as I developed as an artist I started to work with different colors and shade ranges and to find beauty in that.”

“Serenity” became a special project for Duncan, pushing her out of her comfort zone. She looks forward to showcasing her artwork for the first time at a public event and is even more excited to meet other artists and see their work.

Amongst the visual art displayed, a group of dancers from Dancing and Stepping at Amherst College (DASAC) will perform Friday night.

The idea for Black Art Matters first originated two years ago from current Amherst College junior and MRC programmer, Zoey Akoto. Her freshman year, she noticed there was scarce representation of black art and artists of color in areas of student life around campus, such as at the Marsh Arts House and within student organizations.

“Amherst can be a really competitive academic space so highlighting the creativity in the black student community and honoring and thinking about the black mind was something I really wanted to do,” Akoto says.

Akoto held the first Black Art Matters event in a residential hall in February of 2018, setting up easels throughout the area to acknowledge the creative talent of several student majors. After hearing about Akoto’s idea, Amodeo suggested that the next year’s festival should be held at the Mead.

“One of the things we try to do at the museum is let students know and let our audiences know that this is a space for them to feel at home, to program, to feel welcome and do these activations,” Amodeo says.

The second event saw tremendous growth with the production level, participants and attendees, according to Akoto.

“Extending it to the five colleges, I really think there is so much work that can be done to create great solidarity and interconnectedness throughout the community,” she says. “You’re opening up yourself to so many new people, so many new ideas, and opportunities for growth,” she says.

With Akoto currently abroad in Paris, France, MRC Program Coordinator and Amherst College senior, Sade Green, takes her place in organizing the event this year. Serving as the MC of the night, Green is looking forward to seeing creative black students share and take ownership of their work. She believes, “black art is allowed to be rooted in joy.”

“I want people to know that black art does not have to be rooted in trauma for it to be worthy,” she says. “We are allowed to have happy endings.”

Last year’s event saw a variety of work including a performance by Dezmond Dane, a former UMass Amherst student. The rapper performed two original singles, “Monaco to Paris” and “Better than Imagine.”

“You were surrounded by the history you were supposed to embody. It was very intimate and close-knit,” says Dane. “It was a really dope event not only to celebrate the culture as a whole but at the same time to appreciate the people who were trying to be represented at the time, and the art pieces around it just added to that effect.”

Now living in New York in order to spread his name outside of western Massachusetts, Dane cannot attend this year’s event. But he encourages performing artists to treat their routine with the same level of reverence and respect that the physical pieces around the museum receive.

Visual artwork at the 2019 event included a self-portrait series by Amherst College alumna Joanna Booth. Through sketches of herself and her family, Booth told her story of what it means to be a black woman. Jonathan Jackson, another Amherst College graduate, displayed his photography series where he imitated particular identities of historical figures and slaves in front of the lens. Another piece on display that year was a “Black Lives Matter” quilt symbolizing lineage, its importance and the trauma that comes with that lineage in black families.

According to Amodeo, last year’s event was followed by questions like “When is it happening again?” and “Can it happen all the time?” Guests and participants expressed interest in having this kind of representative work more frequently in the museum, she says.

A 2019 study conducted by a group of mathematicians, statisticians and art historians at Williams College found that the average American art museum collection is comprised of 85% white artists. African American artists make up only 1.2% of the works. The Mead is not exempt from these statistics.

“We will continue programming around the need for black art and black representation,” says Amodeo.

The museum tries to work with campus resource centers serving specific student populations, including the Queer Resource Center and the Center for Diversity in Student Leadership, and to learn how the museum can assist, according to Amodeo.

“[The resource centers] are the front lines. They’re doing the triage work and we’re going to them and listening to them, taking their cues, and saying, ‘What do your students need? How can we amplify the work you’re doing?’” says Amodeo.

Assuming the director and chief curator position at the Mead in 2015, David Little says he prioritizes forming relationships across campus that enable students to feel welcome in the community.

“Coming in as the new museum director, looking around and seeing what art was on view and what the program was like I felt the program had to change,” says Little.

Diversifying the representation of the artwork at the museum became Little’s number one effort for the Mead. So, he and the museum team began to acquire work by artists of color. One of the first shows the Mead presented under Little was work by a South African artist, Zanele Muholi. The exhibition featured a selection of Muholi’s photographs representing the complex history of race and gender in South Africa.

Since Little became director, the Mead has invited artists of color to the museum to meet and speak with students. Initially, the Mead would send artists to speak in student spaces instead of having the students come to them. Finding success in these programs, the Mead is now at the stage where students and resource centers are coming to the museum to connect with visiting artists.

“It’s a really big and significant transition for the Mead and its relationship to students,” Little says.

The museum’s Rotherwas Room is currently displaying an installation by African American children’s author and artist Christopher Myers, which will be on view during Black Art Matters.

“Chris is one of those guys who prove, ‘I can do it and you can do it.’ That’s a great message for all the students to hear. To see someone like that and say, ‘Hey I can do something like that. I can be a part of that experience,” says Little.

The MRC hosted Myers on Thursday, Feb. 20, where students sat with the artist over lunch to learn more about his artistic work centered around historically marginalized perspectives. The event aligned with the MRC’s official mission to supply resources of support to students of color and all cultural groups.

“I feel like programs like Black Art Matters can be so empowering and can help give students the tools and reinforcement, and the fuel, to continue to do the work and be resilient,” says Rafus-Brenning.

She believes the festival is a chance for artists to network and support one another. It is an opportunity for the community to get a sense of what it looks like to prioritize and elevate student voices and recognize transformative events that can be created when students are heard.

“We’re telling students: ‘you are artists already; you’re not aspiring artists. If you are creating art, you are an artist.’ It doesn’t have to fit a mold or subscribe to a certain standard,” Rafus-Brenning says.


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